Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Homosexual Teacher Here Is `Out,' but Scores Stay Closeted Gays, Lesbians Fear for Their Jobs, despite Union Support

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Homosexual Teacher Here Is `Out,' but Scores Stay Closeted Gays, Lesbians Fear for Their Jobs, despite Union Support

Article excerpt

Homosexual teachers in the St. Louis area are disgusted when they hear gay jokes, but they say nothing. They get jittery when spotted marching for gay rights. They avoid questions about their personal life and talk to reporters about homosexuality only with anonymity.

Why? They fear losing their jobs.

Except for Rodney Wilson.

Wilson, a history and social studies teacher at Mehlville High School, told his teen-age students during a class discussion in March on the Holocaust that he was gay. Wilson, 29, told the class he would have died because Nazis killed homosexuals.

After he "came out," administrators sent Wilson a memo saying classroom discussion of "facts and belief of a personal nature" was "inappropriate conduct for a teacher."

Wilson challenged the district. He won support from the gay community, teachers, parents and students and, from behind the scenes, the National Education Association (NEA).

Gay and lesbian teachers find longstanding support from their unions, including the NEA. Since 1973, the NEA has offered free legal counsel to teachers harassed or discriminated against because of sexual orientation.

The NEA continues to support a resolution adopted almost a decade ago that states "all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, should be afforded equal opportunity within the public education system." The union also believes personnel policies and procedures must protect an individual's rights in relation to his or her sexual orientation.

On Thursday, the issue came before the Mehlville School Board after Wilson was featured in a cover story Aug. 3 in the Riverfront Times. About a dozen Mehlville residents on both sides of the issue spoke to the board.

"We have nothing against him being gay," said Debbie Povich, a parent. "We just don't want him to teach it to our kids."

Povich's husband, who spoke to the board, said afterward that he felt homosexuality was "a deviation. It's unnatural."

Another resident, Joan Ward, said homosexuals had shorter lifespans. "The body is not meant to be used in that way," she said.

But a few parents like Anne Kasal spoke in support of Wilson. Kasal said her son, Jason, now 20, is gay and graduated in 1992 from Mehlville High School.

"I really do feel he has the right to say he's gay," Kasal said in reference to Wilson.

Kasal said she knew a number of other gay teachers in Mehlville schools, "and they're wonderful teachers," she said.

Both Mehlville Superintendent Robert Rogers and School Board President Alex Lantos say Wilson, who is nontenured, has a contract to teach in the coming school year at Mehlville High.

The issue of gay teachers had never come up in Mehlville until Wilson brought it up. And the board seems ready to let it drop.

Said Rogers: "We expect Mr. Wilson or any other teacher to teach the appropriate curriculum. I think he needs to follow that guideline, and he'll be fine."

When asked what he thought of gay teachers, Rogers said, "If (Wilson) wants to announce he's gay, that's his business." And if Wilson continues to make that announcement in the classroom?

"That may be a different issue," Rogers said.

Lantos said that regardless of parents' point of view, he appreciates the concern they have for their children. "I think every parent has the right to state their opinion," he said.

Wilson intends to stay out of the closet, although he is vague about whether he will discuss homosexuality in class. Wilson contends he has not violated any policies of the Mehlville School District and adds he intends to follow those policies.

"This is purely a free speech issue and an academic freedom issue," he said. Taking Attendance

Wilson finds little company "coming out." Most gay and lesbian teachers crowd the closet cloaking their sexual orientation.

"It's kind of like the military," said a lesbian teacher at a public high school in St. Louis County who has hidden her sexual orientation for the 23 years she has taught in the city and county. "They're not going to ask, and we're not going to tell."

The area has at least two local homosexual teachers organizations - a Lesbian Teachers Network started about a year ago, and a group Wilson has started for gay and lesbian teachers. Eight people attended Wilson's first meeting, and Wilson says he hopes to double that number at the next meeting this month.

No one keeps an official count of the number of gay and lesbian educators. But two gay teachers say they know at least 50 to 100 teachers in the St. Louis area who are homosexual. One of them estimates that there are "several hundred" gay and lesbian teachers.

Karen M. Harbeck, an education professor at Boston College, believes that in every school building in America you can expect to find an average of 2.4 teachers who are gay or lesbian.

Harbeck wrote "Coming Out of the Classroom Closet: Gay and Lesbian Students, Teachers, and Curricula."

Harbeck said gay and lesbian teachers who read her book write from as far away as South Africa to say "thank you." And students across the United States share tales of staying home because they get beat up at school when other teens discover they are homosexual.

Gay and lesbian educators would like to be open about their orientation so they could be role models for homosexual students.

"It would be good for them to see that someone they admire and care about is gay," said a lesbian teacher here. "They can see that I'm a very normal, run-of-the-mill person who pays my taxes and works hard."

And several gay activists believe freedom and tolerance for a teacher's sexual orientation even could save lives. Harbeck says one-third of the 5,000 teens who commit suicide each year are homosexual. Fear Prompts Hiding

Fear forces homosexual teachers to hide their sexual orientation or whisper it as a secret to trusted colleagues, students and parents.

"There is a tacit understanding in school that as long as you don't come out of the closet, even if people suspect you're homosexual, you can keep your job," Harbeck said.

Harbeck said Wilson had the courage it takes to come out.

"Rodney got tired of living a lie," said Harbeck, a lawyer who is hired as a consultant for administrators, principals, counselors and students on sexual diversity in the classroom. "He got tired of the faggot jokes. He got tired of trying to be invisible. He got tired of not feeling like an open person . . . so he came out . . . and he did it with a lot of dignity."

Harbeck met Wilson at an NEA teachers workshop on homosexuality in the classroom. She plans to hold a similar workshop here this fall for educators, students and parents. One Happy Family

On her classroom desk, a teacher at a public elementary school in St. Louis County proudly displayed a collage of her family: five grown children and three grandchildren. One snapshot showed her gay son with his arm around his lover's waist.

That bothered the teacher's supervisor. The supervisor asked the teacher to take the photo home and also to remove a red ribbon the teacher wore on her jacket in support of AIDS research.

"I felt terrible," said the teacher. "I'm proud of all my kids."

The teacher quietly packed up all her photos and took off the pin.

She says teachers who are parents of homosexuals fear that "coming out" in support of their sons or daughters could cost them their jobs.

The teacher resents having to stay underground. "Why should we (parents) of gays and lesbians be closeted when we could be open?" she asked.

Quietly, she resists. At recess, when children shout "fag" she asks them to stop the name-calling. "I tell them I have a gay son, and I personally don't appreciate that word."

A lesbian teacher in her 20s who teaches at an elementary school in St. Charles County says she is only "out" to two other teachers at her school, one of whom also is a lesbian. The teacher, who requested anonymity, said she, in essence, had been pressured out of a teaching job at a private school in St. Louis. Although her departure was voluntary, "I think they wanted me to leave because I was `out' to too many people at the school."

The teacher said she thought more gay teachers being open would kill what she called "the two biggest myths" about homosexual teachers: that gay teachers will try to `recruit' students into the gay lifestyle or that they will molest students.

"If I could be out, my students wouldn't have a reason to fear gay and lesbian people," she said. "It would do a lot to dispel some myths. I have long hair. I don't look like a lot of people think a lesbian looks."

Today many gays and lesbians find a greater level of acceptance while in college. A 22-year-old graduate student at Washington University who is gay said, "I feel like campuses almost everywhere are more open to homosexuals because there is so much more diversity than in a small high school."

He says some homosexuals may find that the closet door does not open and shut but rather revolves.

"Coming out isn't something you do once," said the graduate student. "It is a process. You go out and in depending on how comfortable you feel with the topic and whether you want to go through the process of dealing with the people around you."

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